Skip to comments.Infidels: The Conflict between Christendom and Islam
Posted on 05/06/2003 8:58:15 PM PDT by Destro
The new crusade - for understanding
By A.C. Grayling
Published: May 2 2003 15:20 | Last Updated: May 2 2003 15:20
The Cross and the Crescent: Christianity and Islam from Muhammed to the Reformation by Richard Fletcher, Penguin Press £16.99, 183 pages
Infidels: The Conflict between Christendom and Islam 638-2002 by Andrew Wheatcroft, Viking £20, 443 pages
In the wake of the events of 9/11 dozens of books have appeared on the subject of Islam - what it is, what its current and past relationship with the rest of the world (but especially the west) is, and why that relationship is so problematic. Some have subtitles asking, in various ways, "what has gone wrong?", as if the relationship has been all right until some recent point in history - the founding of Israel, perhaps?
Or the drawing of lines in Arabia's sands by British and French colonial powers after the first world war.
The books under review here do not fall into this class, because both were already being written when 9/11 happened. That makes them all the more valuable. They address a key need - for readable history of the interaction between Islam and (doing duty for the west) Christendom - but they do not begin by looking through the 9/11 lens, which focuses exclusively on the difficulty of trying to deal with present tensions as if they were not a "clash of civilisations" such as Samuel Huntington defined in his influential book. Most post-9/11 western discussions of the relationship try to play down inflammatory ways of construing it. Thus, worthy sensitivities make the word "crusade" taboo, and unworthy ones make some western feminists silent about the position of women in Islam. The courtesy is not much returned, mainly because moderate and modernising Islamic voices are not always in a position to speak out - like Iran's Ezzatollah Sahabi, imprisoned in April 2000. The many others who have called for democracy and the separation of state and religion in the Islamic world include Egypt's Salaheddin Mohsen, who was prosecuted for "contempt of heavenly religions".
But both these books show, with pre-9/11 candour, that it is useless to gloss over the fact that present difficulties are neither new nor surprising. The history of mutual mistrust, hatred and conflict that has existed between the respective votaries of Christ and Muhammed in the regions around the Mediterranean is a long one. The enmity began practically at the moment of Islam's birth in the seventh century AD. That it has occupied only the margins of the west's radar in recent history is an unusual state of affairs, prompted by the weakness of the Ottoman Empire in its last century, and the relatively minor importance of other Islamic parts of the world (the Balkans, North Africa, Arabia, the Indonesian archipelago) in the palmy days of the Pax Britannica.
Islam's own version of its history has Muhammed receiving his divine revelations about 610, beginning to preach in Mecca in 612, having to flee to Medina in 622, returning to Mecca as its conqueror in 630, and dying in 632. By that time the world of warring Arab tribes had been unified and bound together by a simple but exigent religion which placed on those who submitted to it (Islam means "submission") a duty of jihad (which means "effort" or "struggle") to convince unbelievers, either peacefully or, if they prove recalcitrant, with the sword's edge.
Almost at the moment of Muhammed's death, armies of hardy desert Arabs began to attack the borders of the eastern Roman Empire, and in the half-century that followed they swept north and west to the very margins of the Caspian Sea, absorbing what was left of Persia, and south and west to the Pillars of Hercules overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar. Their success was as much a measure of the settled and unwarlike dispositions of the mature and effete Roman provinces, which were surprised by the barbarian incursions, as of the Muslim warriors' own untempered ferocity.
The sentiment that drove these remorseless invasions is well summed up by the Arab General, Uqba bin Nafi. Reaching the Atlantic at the head of his Muslim forces, he urged his horse into the surf, crying: "God is great. If my horse were not stopped by this sea, I would still ride on to the unknown kingdoms of the west, preaching the unity of God, and putting to the sword the rebellious nations who worship any other god but him."
Naturally, residents of the Christian domains that were attacked by these warriors were shocked into abiding hostility. They interpreted the Muslims as Ishmaelites, offspring of Hagar, condemned by God to hate and be hated by everyone. They saw the Muslim incursions as divine chastisements for their own failings. Because in the early centuries of the unhappy relationship Christians had no conception of the possibility of a "new religion", they saw Islam as either an heretical form of their own faith, or as a straightforward product of the devil. Muhammed was a false prophet, an impostor, even the anti-Christ. The ferocity of his followers, who put whole towns to the sword, gave them a permanent image in Christian eyes as rapacious, cruel and barbaric. The fact that the Holy Land fell early under their dominion was anathema to Christian sensibility; the wretched history of the crusades had their origins in this.
In Richard Fletcher's elegantly succinct account of the first 900 years of the relationship, two claims stand out. One is that the flourishing of Islamic civilisation at its height was the result of its absorption and domestication of the culture it encountered in Spain and Constantinople upon conquering them. The second is that whereas Christians were acutely aware of their dangerous Muslim neighbours, incessantly writing diatribes against them and plotting and undertaking crusades, the attitude of Muslims to Christendom was by and large one of indifference.
The first claim is certainly true. Islamic scholars made good use of the Greek science and philosophy they discovered in the booty of conquest, thereby preserving them for rediscovery by the west in due time. The splendid buildings of Moorish Spain owed much to Christian craftsmen and builders, as did, for example, Cordoba's magnificent public buildings, which were beautified by mosaicists from Constantinople.
The second claim is less persuasive. It would surely have been hard for the rulers on the Bosphorous, in the Holy Land, or in southern Spain to ignore the remorseless pressure of the Christians' response to Arab conquest of what had been Christian terrain. The crusades, the inch-by-inch reconquest of Spain in the centuries up to 1492, the mighty preparations that led to the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, and everything that accompanied these events - forced conversion of Moors in Spain, the burning of the Koran there, the atrocities on both sides - made it clear that such periods of cohabitation as occurred here and there were only pauses, not resolutions.
In places where Muslim and Christian populations overlapped, everything depended on who was dominant. Where Muslims ruled, Christians wore distinctive clothing and suffered civil disabilities to mark their second-class status, like the Jews under Nazism with their yellow Stars of David. Where Christians ruled, the same strictures applied to Muslims. Cross-religion sex was punished by death.
The language of mutual reference was also violent in its hatred. The religious Other was a dog, a pig, a monkey, the offspring of a whore. Muslims called Christians ily, meaning uncivilised, unclean, contaminating. Christians cast Muslims as lazy, lustful, violent and cruel. The idea of Christian purity of descent, directed against both Muslims and Jews, eventually made the Spain unified by Ferdinand and Isabella turn even against converts to Christianity. They, in the end, were "ethnically cleansed" into North Africa and beyond.
In his detailed study Andrew Wheatcroft is careful to observe the evidence of such language. He is especially good on the key question of mutual perceptions and what they licensed. After the fall of Granada, the last Muslim kingdom in Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella reneged on their promise not to force remaining Muslims to convert to Christianity. Protests resulted in an uprising in the Alpujarras which was brutally suppressed. One of Ferdinand's lieutenants, Count Lerin, punished one Muslim village by locking all its women and children in a mosque and then blowing it up with gunpowder. Atrocities were mutual, and they are a terrible indication of what their perpetrators thought and felt.
There is not much solace to be gained from this bloody and hate-filled story. It is possible to ignore the unremitting conflict and concentrate instead on positives - such as the Islamic view of Christianity and Judaism as "Religions of the Book", sharing prophets and a background of monotheism, which ostensibly earn them an honourable if unevolved place in the Muslim world view.
Another positive part of this history is the beauty of Islam's art and poetry, and its role in preserving Europe's own intellectual treasures, while adding mathematical and astronomical advances of its own. These are definite pluses, and it would be a truly sad tale if there were nothing that either culture gave to or got from the other.
But viewed in the long term, it is hard not to feel that one of many things the Palestinian philosopher Edward Said criticises western observers for - namely, seeing Islamic civilisation as frozen and backward-looking, falling behind the scientific, technologised, industrialised west because it is locked in an unprogressive medievalism - may be right after all. Explanations for this are as complex as they are uncomfortable to offer, but both Wheatcroft and Fletcher imply a plausible one. It's that the disjunction between religious and secular aspects of life in the west, and its openness to debate, self-questioning and change is precisely what traditional Islam lacks. As a result, it is in the west, rather than the Islamic world, that technological and industrial progress has occurred. And with this progress have come more flexible forms of social organisation, leading (however fitfully) to the evolution of democracy and human rights.
Whether or not one agrees that these are the right implications to draw from Wheatcroft's and Fletcher's absorbing but disquieting histories of Christian-Muslim enmities and differences, the fact remains that so far the tale is just that: one of difference and enmity. Since the future happiness of mankind is deeply affected by this state of affairs, we can only hope that a frank look at its history will help. That is what Wheatcroft and Fletcher both handsomely provide.
A.C. Grayling's latest book, The Reason of Things: Applying Philosophy to Life, is published in paperback next month.
How interesting. How deja vu.
What irony! Little did poor Uqba know that he was not worshipping Him.
And this is one of the most important things the West has to offer the world.
Aren't France and Germany former Roman provinces?
1 And the dragon stood on the shore of the sea. And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. He had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on his horns, and on each head a blasphemous name.
2 The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority.
And the "Liberal" enclaves of America serve as honorary mature and effete Roman provinces; were it not for the American Heartland--Bush Country--these enclaves would already be Muslim theocracies.
They'd probably love it--at least at first. They love totalitarianism and corruption (that's why they love the United Nations) and control (if they could write the rules, they'd love the taliban). When the women realized that they couldn't drive cars and must wear burqas, and when the men realized that sexual promiscuity was no longer an option, they'd sing a different tune.
It'll be interesting to see how the French and the Germans react when reality begins to dawn on them.
She was truly remarkable. She was one of the first to recognize a need for field hospitals and implement them, that whole Columbus thing, and yet if a button fell off of Ferdinands shirt she insisted on sewing it back on instead of having a handmaiden do it because she felt it was a wife's duty.